Involving service users and carers in social work education

Assessment of students

Service users and carers want to be involved in assessing students as well as in teaching them and providing practice learning opportunities. Some Diploma in Social Work and postqualifying programmes already have arrangements in place but the start of the degree programmes has prompted more joint work on systematic, explicit and formalised processes. Much of the activity has centred on the preparation for practice modules that will be delivered in the first year of the programme. There are plans to involve service users and carers fully in the second and third year and to ensure that they participate in the practice assessment panels.

As the student assessment process moves up the agenda and service users and carers are increasingly involved in its development, there are a lot of practicalities to be addressed. These include who makes the assessment, when, how and to whom? For example, is feedback given directly to the student by the service user, is it collated by the lecturer, the practice assessor or an independent person? Moreover, what weight will be attached to service users’ and carers’ assessments of student portfolios, especially when their opinions differ from those of tutors and practice assessors?

There is also scope for developing more creative methods for service user and carer participation in assessment. For example, several years ago Parsloe and Swift at the University of Bristol piloted and field-tested a method whereby service users, students, tutors and practice teachers independently assessed videos of student interviews with service users. The assessors rated their performance on 15 items and the researchers compared the ratings to see how far the different groups of assessors agreed about what is a good piece of work (14, 51, 52).

As part of the SCIE project, the National Organisation of Practice Teaching (NOPT) generously included a questionnaire in their March 2003 Newsletter, asking for members’ experiences of service user and carer involvement in student assessment on placement. Twenty responses were received initially and the results were analysed and summarised by academic staff at Manchester Metropolitan University and Salford University. In order to take this further, a workshop was planned for the national conference to give practice teachers the opportunity to devise a format for service user/carer feedback. The need to construct guidelines for good practice in this area was also identified. The report for the NOPT newsletter is summarised here.

Several of the Practice Learning Taskforce regional development projects considered how service users and carers could participate in assessment:


National Organisation of Practice Teaching, March 2003'Survey of practice teachers' experiences of service user/carer involvement in student assessment on placement'

A range of responses were received from across England with the majority of practice teachers/work-based assessors having some experience of service user involvement in the assessment of students and around a third with 'considerable’ experience. The majority of practice teachers received this feedback verbally, although some used a written, structured format to elicit these responses. One respondent asked the student to devise their own form for feedback, another using spontaneous comments from the service user at the end of the direct observation - after the student had left.

Key findings included:

  • The most useful method would be a semi-structured format that could be administered by the practice teacher, student or work-based supervisor.
  • The service user could complete this in writing or the practice teacher, student or work-based supervisor could ask verbal questions and record the service user’s replies.
  • One format can be devised to apply flexibly to all settings.
  • Where particular communication issues present themselves, the practice teacher and student should devise appropriate methods of eliciting information.
  • Sensitivity to service user needs and experience is important in the administration of any feedback process.
  • Clear, understandable language should be used.
  • Service user feedback is essential to give service users an authentic voice and to provide varied and balanced feedback for assessment.
  • Feedback needs to be used by the practice teacher as a learning experience for the student.
  • Service user feedback should be a requirement in making an assessment for all students in any setting.
  • It is important for the practice teacher and the student to select the service user together, rather than the student alone.
  • Careful preparation of the service user for involvement in this process is important and must include the right to refuse.
  • Trigger questions linked to core competencies are not the aspects of student performance of most concern to service users - start from the service user perspective.
  • The practice teacher has the task of translating feedback into evidence for the core competencies/national occupational standards.
  • Service users should not be expected to identify aspects of the student’s performance that need to be developed; that again is the practice teacher’s task.

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